Discovery Of 500 Year Old Gruesome Aztec Tower Of Skulls

The Aztec have a gruesome history.

Photo by: Raùl Barrera Rodríguez

Archaeology in Mexico City has a reputation more exciting than most. For starters, one of its key findings was made not by archaeologists but by electricians. Take what happened in 1978.

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When a basement floor fell in, a group of workers saw a statue that turned out to be the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui. This discovery heralded the reappearance of the ancient pyramid of Templo Mayor, or rather the foundations of it.

The Templo Mayor was one of the main temples of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. Its architectural style belongs to the late Postclassic period of Mesoamerica.

Archaeologists discover 500-year-old Aztec towers of skulls.

1. Head of Coyolxauhqui from the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Photo by Carlos Yo – CC BY-SA 4.0

2. Tenochtitlan had been founded in 1325, and its pyramids and temples were the stuff of legend. Not least because of the gruesome stories of human sacrifice that are associated with society.

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3. Tzompantli altar with carved skulls rows in Aztec Temple (Templo Mayor) at ruins of Tenochtitlan – Mexico City, Mexico.

4. El Castillo Kukulkan temple, Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico.


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The tradition began by cutting out the heart of the unfortunate (or fortunate if you were a believer) soul. They were then decapitated, and the flesh carved from their skull. This then had two holes made on either side before being stuck on a horizontal pole.

According to the conquistadors, they saw evidence of approximately 100,000 skulls around Templo Mayor, formed into a rack of these poles called a tzompantli. In a more modern description, a 2018 article on the website of Science magazine put it like this: The scale of the rack and tower suggests they held thousands of skulls, testimony to an industry of human sacrifice unlike any other in the world.

It was never clear whether this vivid description was historical fact or the hyperbole of the Spanish, who wanted to paint the conquered people in as negative a light as possible.

However, as the previous quote suggests, archaeologists have begun to dig up the tzompantli and look into the hollow sockets of its sacrificial victims. Beginning in 2015, a team from INAH (the National Institute of Anthropology and History) have been excavating the area by Mexico City Cathedral, where the secrets of Templo Mayor and its skulls are being examined to determine what type of people were sacrificed.

A tzompantli, illustrated in the 16th-century Aztec manuscript, the Durán Codex. By doing this, they also hope to obtain more information about the role sacrifice played in the day-to-day existence of the Mexica people. John Verano, a bio-archaeologist, remarked on the combination of religious reverence and political consolidation he believes the sacrifices represent: The killing of captives, even in a ritual context, is a strong political statement, Verano says. It's a way to demonstrate power and political influence—and, some people have said, it’s a way to control your population.

As for that population, various theories have been suggested as to who was selected to give up their life and appease the gods.

Analysis of isotopes in the skulls' teeth and bones indicates that victims were resident in Tenochtitlan for a lengthy period before their demise.

This backs up the idea that captives lived with local families in the run-up to slaughter, with other experts thinking people were sold specifically for sacrifice. Among the skulls are men, women, and children, but predominantly men. Grisly, though it is, the collection of skulls being pored over by archaeologists is a historical record of ancient culture. They’re disturbing the sleep of the dead, yet in doing so, they are giving them a new lease of life and us an insight into the world of the Aztecs.

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